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What We Praise When We Praise Mike Freeman. #JusticeForJamar

31 Mar

 

What Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman did by taking responsibility for the Jamar Clark case—and not using the broken grand jury system—is most certainly important and commendable. Nationwide, in case after case, district attorneys have used grand juries as a way to avoid prosecutions of police in cases of use of deadly force. In Ferguson, New York and Cincinnati, we saw prosecutors then report the results of the grand jury as if they had been trials, where all evidence is presented.  Grand juries are not trials. In cases of police use of deadly force, they are escape hatches.

Freeman had initially said that he too would punt his responsibility as a prosecutor to a grand jury, and many were upset that the community was once again being asked to trust in a system that in Minnesota in recent years has seen not one officer charged in cases of deadly force.  As the Star Tribune reported, “Since 2000, at least 143 people in Minnesota have died after being shot, Tased or restrained by a police officer. To date, not a single officer has been charged in any of those deaths.”

Freeman

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman (Photo, KSTP)

And so there was much rejoicing when Freeman reversed himself and announced that he would not only not use a grand jury in the case of Jamar Clark but that, under his watch, no officer-involved shootings would go to grand juries.

Since Wednesday’s press conference, when Freeman announced that the two officers in the Clark case would not face charges, the County Attorney has also been commended for making available much of the video and documentary evidence he used to reach that conclusion.  He has been applauded, by fellow politicians and editorial boards, for the seemingly unprecedented transparency in making this move.

But can we pause for a moment and ask the question, what are we praising when we praise Mike Freeman?

As I read these songs of praise for the County Attorney because he took responsibility and demanded transparency, the question that came to my mind was, is the bar really that low when it comes to black lives and police accountability?  I know that after Ferguson, Cincinnati, New York and too many other places, this does, indeed, seem to be an aberration.

But isn’t that, in fact, the problem?  Shouldn’t an elected official owning his decisions and being transparent about them be the minimum we expect when it comes to investigating instances where the arm of the state kills a human being?

What we are praising when we praise Mike Freeman is the apparent societal understanding that when it comes to black lives, the minimum is enough.

It is not.

About that Press Conference

Wednesday’s press conference started out well enough.  Freeman began by giving his condolences to Jamar Clark’s family and saying that Jamar deserved to live a full life.  He also did well to preface the substance of his statement by citing the very high bar that our legal system places on finding a police officer culpable in a situation of deadly use of force.  The sad truth is that the law gives police almost complete impunity in these situations. Freeman stated that “police officers in Minnesota are justified in using deadly force in the line of duty when necessary to protect the officer or another person…” He also cited Graham vs. Connor, where the “US Supreme Court held that the use of deadly force by a police officer must be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene… not from the perspective of a civilian” or from the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

There is seemingly no objective criteria by which to judge whether a police officer is in danger.  If he feels in danger, he is in danger. A high bar, indeed.

In his prefatory remarks Freeman also made clear that he feels police departments across the country must re-evaluate how they use deadly force. Police, he says, “must emphasize de-escalation…Police must use discussions, negotiations…They need to use the lowest use of force possible… We simply must reduce the number of situations where guns are discharged by police.”

Perhaps, I thought, he is setting the stage to argue that while the police officers in this case use of force was unfortunate, it was not illegal.  I was wrong.

After describing police reforms as a core belief, Freeman goes on to say:

“Now, I want to be very clear. These remarks are not a reflection of the actions of officers Ringgenberg or Schwarze on November 15, 2015. This case is not at all similar to some of those seen around the country… in Chicago, in Cleveland or North Charleston, South Carolina. These officers were called upon to respond to a person who had assaulted his girlfriend and interfered with the paramedics who were trying to assist her.”

From here on out, the rest of the press conference might as well have taken place in Chicago, Cleveland, North Charleston, Ferguson, or far too many other places.  Freeman the Champion of Police Reform was replaced by Freeman, Defense Attorney of Police Officers.

In detailing the events of the evening Clark was killed, he quoted none of the eyewitness accounts of that night, explaining that their testimonies were contradictory and therefore did not corroborate whether or not Jamar Clark was handcuffed. The prosecutor’s skepticism, however, was reserved exclusively for those eyewitnesses.  He read from the police report dramatically, repeating over and over the alleged final words of Jamar Clark, “I’m ready to die,” even though those words were uncorroborated by anyone other than the two officers.

The not-so-subtle message was clear: Police Words Matter. Black Eyewitnesses’ Words Do Not.

A Missed Opportunity for Leadership and Healing

Like I’m sure a lot of Minnesota, I spoke with friends after the press conference, sharing our reactions.  Some of these friends are leaders active in Black Lives Matter or who spent many hours at the 4th Precinct Occupation last fall.  No one was surprised by Freeman’s decision–we’ve sadly come to expect these outcomes–but all were appalled by the press conference. We talked and asked–fine, so this is the end result.  But couldn’t you have at least told the story differently? Couldn’t you at least suggest some things that the police officers could have done differently?  Did they really practice the de-escalation you said you believed should be police practice?

Freeman only acknowledged the violent take-down of Jamar Clark to say that the police officer learned that technique “in San Diego.” We have since learned this is not considered a proper procedure in Minneapolis. And we knew before that this same officer had actually been sued in San Diego  precisely for using this take-down method! How differently might we all have reacted to the press conference, I thought, if Freeman –following his own stated beliefs about the need to change police practices—had said something like, “this, to me, does not look right. It could have been done differently. They could have negotiated, had a conversation. Unfortunately, given the high legal bar for proving officer misconduct, this is not illegal.” But, no, Freeman could not find a single thing to criticize about the officers’ behavior.  Everything they did was by the book.  Everything. This isn’t, of course, that much a surprise, when you step back to realize that he took every word of their report as Bible.  Of course they look like heroes.

All day I was consumed with thinking, what if he had just presented this evidence differently, might he have at least led, put us on a path toward collective healing?  But later that evening I realized that, in thinking that, I too had been seduced by what seemed like a mountain of evidence Freeman presented.  What woke me up was reading a Facebook post by James C. Burroughs, an African American attorney in Minneapolis.  His post has now been shared hundreds of times, certainly because he expressed so beautifully, in such a heart-wrenching manner, that judging from an evidentiary standpoint, how unconvincing Freeman’s case actually was.  Burroughs wrote:

No Justice for Jamar

As a lawyer and Black man today is a numbing and solemn day. I watched the decision of County Attorney Mike Freeman today as he decided not to prosecute the officers who took the life of Jamar Clark. I hoped Mike, who I have known for years and respect as an attorney, would show me evidence that supported whatever his decision would be. I hoped this evidence would show me that there can be, in some cases, justice when fair people like Mike objectively review the evidence. I knew today I would see evidence that showed me video of 1) how Jamar Clark interfered with the paramedics and refused to let his girlfriend get treatment: 2) how Jamar Clark attacked the officers with no provocation and went for their guns; 3) how Jamar Clark was so out of control that he had to be subdued by gunfire to the head; and 4) how Jamar Clark was not handcuffed and how he was using his hands to attack the paramedics and officers. I was also expecting evidence that showed a balanced review of witness statements that showed how things transpired. I expected Mike not to solely rely on officer testimony. I expected an attempt at justice, even though I might not agree with the final decision. I have been a lawyer a long time so I know that the same facts can sometimes lead to different conclusions. I was prepared to give Mike the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I expected too much. The evidence that Mike presented to me and the rest of the public today showed: 1) paramedics placing Jamar’s girlfriend in the ambulance with no interference from Jamar; 2) an officer grabbing Jamar by the neck from behind and jerking him to the ground only 60 seconds after arriving at the scene; 3) Jamar pacing around the scene and talking to officers and paramedics and at no time striking anyone (no provocation); and 4) no clear evidence of any officer trying to reasonably arrest Jamar after reading him his Miranda rights and trying to place him in handcuffs in a standing position.

I also got to hear Mike primarily rely upon officers’ testimony that said “he went for my gun” and that Jamar said “he was ready to die.” This happened 60 seconds after officers arrived at the scene. Surely if Jamar was ready to die he would have charged the officers and went for their guns immediately after they arrived Or maybe Jamar would have jumped in the ambulance and tried to attack his girlfriend saying ” I’m ready to die.” However, that did not happen. Instead, Jamar was on the ground after being thrown there by the officer and said I’m ready to die after having a gun put to his head. I have been a Black man a long time (longer than I’ve been a lawyer) and I guess I have never heard that uttered from a brother when a cop has a gun to your head. A cop you have known all of 60 seconds.

I guess I am numb because I hoped today would be different. I thought I would see a good man and good attorney, Mike Freeman, show me evidence that justified not charging the officers. I hoped I would be able to digest the decision because the evidence showed that no charges should be brought against the officers. I was hoping the cops statements to Jamar would be corroborated by witnesses and at least be believable.

 

Burroughs opened my eyes as to the questions Freeman’s seemingly thorough presentation did not ask and did not answer.  And since I read that, more questions have surfaced.  KARE11 reported that the officer did not follow proper procedure when he violently took Clark down (linked above). Had that take-down–“learned in San Diego”–not happened, Jamar Clark would likely still be alive today. Wasn’t that perhaps worthy of mention?

And although Freeman stated unequivocally that Jamar “had assaulted his girlfriend and interfered with the paramedics who were trying to assist her,” it didn’t take members of the public long to find in the very documents Freeman released that in both her interviews with police, the woman in question–RayAnn Hayes–repeatedly denies being in a relationship with Jamar Clark. In the second interview she explicitly states annoyance with the media for reporting them as being in a relationship and the situation as being one of domestic violence. In the first interview she was asked if he had beat her previously: “No, I don’t know ’em. How can he beat me when I don’t even know ’em?”

That the officer that day came in with a preconceived idea of what happened might not be surprising.  But that that preconceived notion survived Freeman’s investigation to come out of his mouth months later at his press conference–that is inconceivable.

Thursday evening WCCO news has an exclusive interview with Ms. Hayes. We’ll hear her say, in her own words, what happened that night and what her relationship to Jamar Clark was.

Perhaps her words will be heard by the US Department of Justice, which has not concluded its investigation of the case.  Perhaps to them, her words will matter.  They clearly did not matter to County Attorney Mike Freeman.

UPDATE:
Here is WCCO’s interview of RayAnn Hayes, which seems consistent with what she told police in their two investigatory interviews with her. “No dispute. No domestic. None of that,” she said. “You guys are letting these officers go, and trying to put it on me,” she said. Her testimony seems to blow up the entire narrative of Freeman’s press conference:

 

I am a superdelegate.

10 Feb

An article is making the rounds on social media with a clickbait headline, “The DNC Just Screwed Over Bernie Sanders and Spit in Voters’ Faces.”

Having apparently slept through the 2008 primary season, the author is shocked to learn that by the rules of the Democratic National Committee there are  a number of delegates to the national convention that are elected federal officeholders, party officers and members of the Democratic National Committee.  In 2008, the very same dynamic was at play. Clinton had many elected officials behind her and there came a point when some feared that it was those superdelegates who would decide the nomination.  Those fears did not come to pass.

DNC-kicking-donkey-logo1Since I was elected a Democratic National Committee member representing Minnesota in 2012, this time I get to experience the fun from the inside! Given that I will not be running for reelection to the DNC, I was really hoping my SUPERdelegate status would mean I was getting wined and dined by our candidates.  Alas, Hillary hasn’t called and all I get from Bernie are emails.  No flowers, cards or Edible Arrangements.  Not so super at all.

What I did get today was two calls from reporters.  As concern grows with some Sanders’ supporters that Clinton will “steal” the nomination through superdelegates, I have been called to be identified as a candidate supporter.  Since I might be listed soon as one of the Council of Elders ruining our democracy, I thought maybe I’d state here what I told them and how I feel about this whole thing:

  • I am a Clinton supporter and expect I will be casting a vote for Clinton at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
  • I support reforming our delegate system to eliminate even the possibility of superdelegates deciding a nomination.
  • I do not believe super delegates will decide the nominee.  They didn’t last time and, if it came to that, the party would be so fractured and the process would be so divisive that it would not be a tenable set-up for a general election win.
  • I will be listed as a  Clinton supporter because I am one (more on that in another post); that said, in the unlikely event of the convention coming down to superdelegates deciding over the will of the voting electorate of primary and caucus goers, I would not participate in that.  What that means, who the heck knows.  It’s a far-fetched hypothetical.

That is all.

Have a super day.

UPDATE:

A friend wrote with some math.  There are 4763 total delegates – 712 of those are supers.  That’s 14.9% of the total.  Not exactly an overwhelming and right now about 60% or so remain uncommitted.  So everyone chill, please. 

One of the arguments for having superdelegates is that, if these folks did not have reserved delegate spots they would likely run for national delegate positions and, as party elected officials and leaders, would likely win many of these positions.  So you’d still have a “party elder” problem in the delegate pool. 

 

When did gay-hating bakers become a thing?

7 May

Minnesota State Senator Paul Gazelka joins the national outpouring of concern for the fate of poor, gay-hating bakers. 

 

How much is that cake in the window?

 When did gay-hating bakers become the Rosa Parks of curmudgeons clinging to the past? Was there a memo that went out? Did a convention of bakers pass a resolution or something? Do gay-hating bakers have conventions?  Clearly they have a PR firm, because Holy Jeebus are they getting their story out there. Whoever your agent is, gay-hating bakers, hats off to her. She is working her ass off.

Baking cakes never seemed to me the butchest of professions, but ok.

Oh, and for the record – I don’t want any of your hatecake. 

#Pointergate and the People of the Internet

21 Nov

Dear People of the Internet:

I know, even you must be tiring of this whole #pointergate thing. I’ll try not to repeat myself or what a million others have opined about the KSTP news “story” that is now in its third week of slapsticky goodness. Dearest People of the Internet, I write today to draw your attention to The Columbia Journalism Review’s amazing new article about the scandal with an even more amazing title, “There’s doubling down, there’s tripling down, and then there’s what KSTP is doing.” I promise to try to make it worth your time to read one more piece about how index fingers are tearing away at the very fabric of our society.

That CJR story has some important new tidbits for all of us to enjoy. First, KSTP owner Stanley Hubbard once again speaks about the scandal, which in itself is full of awesome. (Incidentally, the next time someone tries to say that there is a wall – a wall!—between the KSTP newsroom and its ideologically conservative ownership, we now have an entire bibliography of Hubbard commentary and clear involvement in the creation of the news product there).

In the CJR interview, once again, Mr. Burns, er, Mr. Hubbard, does not disappoint.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

Mr. Hubbard has a theory about the origins of P

Mr. Hubbard confirms that the creepy robo-poll that Minneapolis residents have been reporting receiving is indeed KSTP “studying” the public’s reaction to the #pointergate scandal. He feels reassured that their numbers show that the public overwhelmingly “don’t care one way or the other” about the issue, which totally confirms his station’s point that this is a very important issue and worth multiple news stories. Also, some black people have called him and told him “Good job!,” and the granddaughter of an employee, also black, wrote him a note saying she knew the Mayor was flashing a gang sign and she learned that “on the street.” This is all evidence on top of the truth bomb that Mr. Hubbard dropped last week, when he informed us that he hired the first black anchorman in Minnesota —which was not at all an answer to the question, why have you done three #pointergate stories without a single African American on camera to speak to community reactions to the piece?—but does totally prove the story was not racially tinged, let alone racist. I hire black people, get phone calls from black people, and their grandkids send me notes, people!

People of the Internet, Mr. Hubbard also assures us he did his own research: “Hubbard added that he also personally looked up gang signs on Google, and he found one that looked just like what the mayor was doing.” The Google! That’s the same tool so many of you used to find other notorious gangsters, like Martha Stewart, Vice President Biden, the Pope, and, uh-oh, Mr. Hubbard himself.

There’s a lot more in there, including confirmation that the head of the Minneapolis Police Federation was their original source, contradicting previous iterations of the story.  But, People of the Internet, here is the real reason I’m writing. This CJR article once again points to (See what I did there? I’m sorry, I never realized how until now how often we all use the word “point”) a theory that KSTP, Hubbard and Kolls seem to be pushing about this whole #pointergate thing. On MPR, last week Mr. Hubbard suggests this whole controversy was something stirred up by Mayor Hodges and her allies. The CJR story quotes Mr. Hubbard speaking at the Augsburg forum offering “some media criticism of his own”:

“I’ll tell you what reporters should do. If the reporters at MinnPost and the Star-Tribune are really good reporters they will find out who started this so-called Pointergate and started a Twitter site and who that person is associated with. There’s a story. Because you people have been sucked in. You’ve been sucked in, folks.”

Hubbard gang signUh-oh. People of the Internet, I have a confession to make. Gather closer. I think he might be talking about me.

As some of my friends will tell you, I always think it’s about me, but bear with me. I think this is different. An email from Jay Kolls to the mayor’s office that MPR obtained shows that Mr. Kolls has become interested in my personal life. I’ve heard that Hubbard himself has also made a few claims about it around town. Since KSTP may be about to quintuple down on their “story,” they may be about to drop a bombshell on us all: it turns out that I am in a long-term, homosexual relationship with Mayor Hodges’ Chief of Staff! Well, sure, I talk about John Stiles all the time on my podcast,  on this blog, in social media, even on conservative radio, but you see it is very important, relevant, that the public know that Brown Guy Who Quit KSTP also “is associated with” the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.

The dots that KSTP may be trying to connect are that because I’m in a relationship with the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, and because I’ve had a few things to say about #pointergate, I created this backlash.

They got me. Look, what can I say? I hate cleaning the cat boxes and the dishes hadn’t been done in weeks. I owed John Stiles a favor. So I created #pointergate. (Merry Christmas, sweetie! I got your gift early!)

This only makes sense if, People of the Internet from across the country—the overwhelming number of whom I have never met, who have tweeted and Facebooked about this by the tens of thousands—I CONTROL YOU. I’m sorry, really. I promised I would keep our relationship on the DL, People of the Internet. Mr. Hubbard, however, has uncovered our dirty little secret, and now the whole world knows.

You’ve been sucked in, folks.

Now that the secret of my extraordinary power over The Interwebs, is out there, I really should make you, People of the Internet, do stuff more often. I’m coming up with a list: stay tuned.

***

Can I be serious for a minute? Allow me to recommend some reading for organizers, business people, and anyone interested in how the “wisdom of the crowd” works in the Age of the Internet: Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstom’s “The Starfish and The Spider.” (I thank Marianne Manilov for this insight and introducing me to Brafman and Becks’ book. See her “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond”).

Brafman and Beckstrom’s premise is simple. There are two models of organizations we can see functioning in business (and other realms): spider organizations and starfish organizations. A spider organization is hierarchical, with a leader at the top. And what happens when you cut a spider’s head off? It dies. A Starfish organization, on the other hand is “leaderless” (though I would prefer to think of it as decentralized leadership). What happens when you cut off one of a starfish’s arms? It grows another one. In some species of starfish, the cut off arm itself becomes its own starfish.

Remember in the early day of the Tea Party movement, when groups were popping up all over the place calling themselves Tea Partiers (before big money got involved and channeled the movement into being an arm of the Republican Party, that is)? Remember the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, when something that was hatched as a concept by a graphic artist became an encampment in New York and then in more and more places around the globe? What do those two moments have in common? Neither has a “president” or head, one whose head could be chopped off and the whole thing would die down. They were impossible to define, pin down, and that was their very power.

Go back to Arab Spring. In the face of thousands of Egyptians crowding Tahir Square, the Egyptian government went in search of a culprit, and they found one: Wael Ghonim, a Google employee who they accused of orchestrating the whole “fake” uprising. Mr. Ghonim was imprisoned and, upon his release, said in an interview:

“The heroes are the ones in the streets … people who put themselves in danger for real. And I’m sitting writing on the keyboard…. This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet that became the revolution of the youth of Egypt.”

The Egyptian government thought that what they had on their hands was a spider uprising and that, once they chopped off that spider’s head, the fervor would die. They failed to see that twitter, the internet, all kinds of technology, had created a Starfish Revolution, one that (I’m not Middle East Expert, so forgive me for opining) is probably still years in the making. And when they tried to cut off that spider’s head, the movement only grew.

What does all this have to do with #pointergate? I hate to break it to Mr. Hubbard, but I didn’t do it. The city and the country reacted as it did because your story was just that stupid and just that offensive.

Yes, of course, people worked to push back on the station’s insane story. There are multiple authors and leaders, but this one was the most important: community organizing.

For the first week of #pointergate, back when KSTP was still saying that the story was not about Navell Gordon but about the mayor’s “judgment,” Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the youth and African-American led North Side organization that employed Navell Gordon, led the charge. The People of the Internet rallied around NOC because they saw KSTP’s story as an affront to their good work and the work of all trying to actually do something good in the world under difficult circumstances.

So, yes, David Brauer, a former media critic who heard the story was going to air, was the person who coined the term “pointergate,” which encapsulated the silliness of the whole thing. And, yes, I was the first to tweet to the hashtag. It was young, pretty badass organizers, however –many of whom earned their stripes in the Occupy movement and who know a little thing or two about social media–who lit the fire as they fought to defend their work (not a mayor). But, ultimately, a person and one community organization cannot alone create the phenomenon like #pointergate. That is, simply put, the wisdom of the crowd. The People of the Internet Spoke, and that is why KSTP has backed itself into a quadruple down contortion.

So, what’s next for KSTP and #pointergate?

The CJR story makes one thing clear for us: KSTP will make sure we stop talking about #pointergate when they damn well please. Where do I think the story is likely to go? Here are my guesses:

  • Sunday night is one of the best nights for local news stations. Maybe that’s when their next story will be.
  • Expect they’ll highlight their “poll” to make the case that they’ve been right all along and only the internet (run by ME!) thinks they’re wrong.
  • Expect them to finally find an African-American or two to put on camera and confirm the mayor flashed gang signs.
  • Expect them to continue to sensationalize Navell Gordon’s life. After first saying their story was not about Gordon, last week they ripped off all pretense and made him the focus of their story. Working with police sources who are embarrassed by this whole fiasco, expect them to continue to go after him.
  • Expect them to argue that the whole controversy was concocted by the Hodges team to distract from crime in the city and maybe, gulp, perhaps point to yours truly as one of the evil masterminds.

I honestly hope I’m wrong about all of these. There is important work to do in Minneapolis and the state. There are actual news stories to cover. Give it a rest, guys.

Yes, Jay Kolls and Stan Hubbard trolling around about my private life is creepy, and not just because we all know what kind of havoc a billionaire with a chip on his shoulder can wreak.

I suppose I could start looking over my shoulder more, but that sounds exhausting and I have enough to do already. Which reminds me…

People of the Internet, Get Ready. I have some shit for you to do.

#TrendingNationally,

Your T.I.P.

 

 

 

Through Pain, Towards Joy: Thoughts on the President’s Immigration Announcement

20 Nov

I wrote this recently as a reflection of a difficult period in my career as a union leader and organizer. I remembered it today as I watched news coverage of President Obama’s announcement tonight (Thursday) that he will take executive action to provide temporary relief for millions of immigrants living in the US but in the shadows. It weaves the very personal with a story about organizing work, and it feels incomplete, but I thought I’d post this today as a personal reflection on this moment. The president’s announcement is only a partial victory; we cannot fully celebrate until our laws are actually fixed. We must go beyond temporary fixes. This does, however, seem like a good moment to reflect on the pain we have been living and on the work ahead we have to create a future of joy.

This vacation was supposed to be a break from stress. It was on the tail end of a short sabbatical from work, and the hot sun on this beautiful beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 minutes south of Cancun, was supposed to be a reprieve. But no sooner had I put on shorts and gone out onto the sand, I noticed the spot on my foot and I start to panic. I know what that is. And it’s not the first one so I definitely know what that is. I tell myself not to freak out, that after a week of sunning I’ll see if it goes away. And I actually did manage to forget it. But on Friday of that week, when I was admiring my tan brown body –I’m Puerto Rican, I get very dark in the sun—and there is that one spot, as discolored and white as it had been before, now standing out even more from my tanned skin.

I know what this is and a few days later my doctor in Minnesota confirms it. He took one look at the spot on the foot, said “it’s vitiligo.” My eyes well up. “Oh,” I say. “Were you worried about that?” and I say yes as a tear falls. He gives me a referral to a dermatologist and doesn’t say another word. As angry as I was at my hip, gay Uptown doctor and his utter lack of bedside manner, looking back I kind of understand why he didn’t think it was the big deal I did. Vitiligo is Michael Jackson’s disease. No one ever believed he had one, they thought he was just lightening his skin to be white, but he actually suffered from this autoimmune condition where your skin gradually loses its pigment. The darker your skin the more noticeable it is because of the contrast. Vitiligo is not deadly. It’s not a symptom of anything and it doesn’t cause anything. It doesn’t hurt, unless you count vanity.

I read everything I could about vitiligo and found a dermatologist who specializes in its treatment. There’s no real cure, although there are some effective treatments. I learned that, although they don’t know what causes it, for people who get it later in life it often comes after a period of extreme stress. That I knew about.

 

I am the president of a union of close to 6,000 over 4200 of them janitors. The members of the union come from all over the world – the industry has always been sort of an Ellis Island of occupations. Our members clean all of the downtown buildings, the skyways, the airport and commercial office buildings across the metro area. I had taken that brief sabbatical from work because the previous year and a half had been brutal. Around 4,000 janitors are members of the union and on June 6, 2009, hundreds of janitors and their families were packed into our union hall for a big meeting. Our member meetings are not usually that well attended, but just two days before we had gotten word that our largest employer was being audited by Immigrations Customs Enforcement.

What happens during one of these audits is ICE collects from an employer all of the documents that employees fill out when they’re first hired. We got word that 1,256 janitors were on a “Notice of Suspect Documents” and that every Monday for six weeks 200 would be notified they were on the list and told they had until Thursday to present new documentation or be fired immediately. No due process, no time to correct honest mistakes – they didn’t even tell people what was allegedly wrong with the documentation they did present, sometime 10 to 12 years prior, when they first applied for the job.

1256 people on a list. This was the Obama administration’s supposedly softer, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the swat team raids of the Bush era and replaced them with these silent, desktop raids. We were all, of course, panicked. What we fought for when we worked to elect president Obama was quick immigration reform. We did not get that, but we did get access. Within a week I was in a meeting in Washington DC with the Chief of Staff of ICE, and for the next month I shuttled back and forth, was on constant phone calls, begging. We need more time. You can’t expect people in three days to be able to figure out what is wrong and fix it. What if people are mistakenly on the list? When we finally got the complete list it didn’t take long to find US citizens, residents on the list. But even if someone on the list was not authorized to work, if they are indeed undocumented, can they at least be given more than 48 hours to prepare?

Hundreds turned out to meetings we’d have where we had an army of volunteer attorneys trying to help find people who might have legal recourse to a work visa. At those meetings, members agreed and understood that until we fix our insane, broken immigration laws that all we could do was buy time. We knew that people who had non-union jobs in situations like this got fired on the spot. And every day of work was eight more hours on a paycheck. We got the company to back off their initial plan of 200 letters going out a week while I continued to try to get DC to say definitively they would give us more time. For six weeks we were in limbo. DC would tell us one thing, local ICE would say something different to the employer.

Six weeks the uncertainty lasted. I got a phone call from the Chief of Staff of ICE. It was brief. She asked how much time we needed. I said 90 days. She hung up. Not long after, I got a call from our employer.  They confirmed ICE had finally loosed their grip and provided the time extension.

Right after that call we scheduled another meeting attended by hundreds. I was so happy, we had done it. I had done it. I did what no one said could be done—I got us more time. At this meeting, I think I even had a smile on my face as I gave everyone the good news. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized the mistake I had made. You fucking idiot. You self-involved prick. You. Fucking. Idiot. You come in here declaring we’ve staved off the execution but here is your date certain –and you expect people would cheer? That they’d be happy? Yes, everyone said they understood that until our laws are fixed all we could hope for was borrowed time. But now, you’ve given them a date. You have 90 days. In 90 days you will be fired. And you come in here with a fucking smile?

We thought – I thought – that if we had had a big public fight with the Obama administration about this raid that we would essentially be admitting that many of our members were not authorized to work and that that would accelerate the process of firing people. And so we chose silence. Members agreed, but that’s where I led. And I was wrong. Our members felt betrayed by everyone – their employer, who of course knew, the government, who also knew, and the union, who didn’t stand up to all of this hypocrisy, even if it meant people getting fired immediately. I didn’t stand up and publicly say. This is fucking wrong. This union that had had big, public campaigns to win good contracts and affordable healthcare was silent. We were invisible. And it has eaten at me ever since.

I don’t know that I can ever forgive myself for that mistake. Yes, we bought more time. And in those 90 days a couple dozen people were able to be helped by lawyers and got their papers fixed. Others at least had time to prepare. When we surveyed members, 600 said their home was in foreclosure or they feared it would be soon.   During those 90 days and after, rumors flew around. We heard some were saying that in my shuttling back and forth to DC I had actually sold everyone out. As much as those rumors still pierce my heart like a bullet, the frustration they express had an essential truth at its core. Of all the characters involved in this drama – the employer, ICE, President Obama, the union—we, the union, we are the only entity whose charge, whose reason for being, is empowering and protecting workers. And we were powerless to do anything. That we should get disproportionate blame – it may not be correct, but it is understandable.

This was not the first desktop raid we suffered. A year later, 250 more members lost the jobs. Then they started going after smaller companies. I started joking with my friends about the stress and my vitiligo, These mother fuckers are not going to stop until I am completely white.

There is a lot I love about my job. When you work in social justice and you have a victory, you take part in adding joy into the world. It’s now five years later and the raids have stopped, or paused. We’re still waiting for DC to fix our immigration laws. The vitiligo is still around, though it has not spread, and I know that the stress that I feel doing this work is nothing compared to the stress experienced by undocumented workers living in the shadows every day.

When I am in a bad place about work, I try to remember all of the joyful moments in organizing. When we work together and win healthcare and wage increases, when we fight a Big Bank and save someone’s home from foreclosure. There are many. And then I think, if only the work was more about all of those moments of joy and not all of this pain, or at least a lot less of it. I had a prolonged moment of funk centered around these thoughts.

I came out of that mental cloud reading the work of a Tibetan Buddhist, Yongey Minghur Rimpoche, author of The Joy of Living. I was especially drawn to a meditation on compassion where you visualize yourself on your in breath, taking in pain, suffering, all of the pain and suffering in the world, and on the out breath you emit life. Breathe in, pain. Emit light. Pain. Light.

I realized that in this kind of work you can’t wish for just one side of that. “If only I didn’t have to deal with all this…” The work is both. Breathe in Pain. Emit Light. And I try to remember this, especially at times when it feels just too hard to breathe.

*****

Tonight, the President will be announcing temporary relief for millions of people. I’ve been going through my head today the names and faces of former member who I know will be helped by this action, and it is overwhelming. I’m looking up old phone numbers, calling people up to invite them to a party we will be having to watch the president’s speech in Nevada where he will detail the impact of the relief the administration will provide. Yes, the Right Wing is already fighting back, talking retaliation and outrage that the President is doing the same thing that Presidents Bush and Reagan did before him.

But, tonight and tomorrow, all that stuff is just noise. We are celebrating the lessons learned of the past. We will not lead from silence any longer. We are celebrating the promise of the future. This fight is not over until we have not just temporary relief but have fixed our unjust laws. We are celebrating the lives of men, women and children who have worked through years of pain and fear to seek what all of us seek–because we all deserve to live lives of joy.

 

Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

Wrong About Everything This Week – #pointergate and more!

17 Nov

logo smallFor those of you new to this blog through #pointergate, as you can see I don’t write very consistently.  I wish I had the time.

I do co-host a weekly podcast, “Wrong About Everything,” that is an irreverent, fun and bipartisan look at Minnesota and national politics.  t’s two Democrats and two Republicans, and the funnest part of my week is getting together with this group every Sunday to talk serious policy but also laugh and be silly with each other. You can find the show in iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you prefer to download podcasts.

On this week’s episode, we discuss Stanley Hubbard’s Mr. Burns impersonation in his MPR interview meltdown at

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

the end of last week, giving me a “Dear White People” moment where I give advice on what not to say when asked a question about race. We also have some fun talking about the (Mac)Gruber Obamacare Follies and ask, will the Republicans be able to stop themselves from saying crazy racist stuff when President Obama signs his upcoming Executive Order on Immigration.  Also, the silver lining to this year’s election fiasco for Democrats? The Return of our Republicans Gone Wild segment!

We didn’t discuss this on the show, but if you’re following #pointergate, don’t miss this takedown of KSTP from the St. Cloud Times.